In 2006, the university hired Jason Chein, a 1997 psychology and computer science alumnus, to help lay the foundation for a behavioral neuroimaging research group.
Now, a little more than a decade later, Chein directs the Temple University Brain Research and Imaging Center, a new facility designed to accommodate the diverse needs of a rapidly growing community of scientists.
“We went from one, me, to having somewhere on the order of 20 individuals who do some form of neuroimaging research here,” Chein said. “With that much larger user-base…the need for a center like this one became apparent.”
TUBRIC opened in February with support from the university and the College of Liberal Arts. The center is equipped with a new and more powerful fMRI machine, and it will “serve as the backbone for brain imaging research here [at Temple],” Chein said.
Neuroimaging is the process of capturing images of a participant’s brain that doctors and scientists can use to observe its function and structure. Neuroimaging tools like TUBRIC’s fMRI, a type of scanner that non-invasively produces images of brain activity, are useful for studying human behavior, and can aid clinicians in identifying brain abnormalities and planning treatment for their patients.
Researchers like those at TUBRIC use neuroimaging techniques to investigate behavioral neuroscience, the study of how human behavior relates to the biological function of the brain.
By working closely with other schools, Chein said he hopes TUBRIC will attract researchers from fields not historically associated with behavioral neuroimaging, like political science and criminal justice.
“Researchers who had previously not had access to imaging technology in an environment in which they thought they could implement their work now see that opportunity,” Chein said.
The new machine, which uses a 3-Tesla Siemens PRISMA magnet, will have a significant impact on the types of research possible at Temple.
“It’s speed, it’s spatial precision, it’s temporal precision,” Chein said. “It’s not that it completely changes what we do. It just completely changes what we can do.”
This improved efficiency also allows researchers to reduce the amount of time that a subject spends in the fMRI. Saving time is important, Chein said, because a subject’s fatigue and boredom can actually affect the image produced by the machine.
“It changes what you get from them when they’re in [the fMRI] for an hour and now you’re collecting data, compared to what happens when you’ve got them for 20 minutes,” Chein said.
Before TUBRIC, researchers studying human brain function relied on Temple University Hospital’s department of radiology to conduct neuroimaging research.
Use of the 3-Tesla fMRI at TUH is now primarily dedicated to the hospital’s clinical work, like assessing a patient’s brain function and planning for invasive surgeries or therapies.
While many researchers still use the scanner in the radiology department to carry out neuroimaging studies, Chein said the clinical nature of the hospital facility can complicate behavioral research study results.
“At the hospital, there’s no behavioral testing rooms,” Chein said. “There’s no place to kind of put the subject before or after they’re in the scanner.”
He added that the clinical atmosphere of neuroimaging facilities can affect the images produced.
“It sets up a kind of psychological anxiety that you don’t want to have before putting someone in the scanner,” Chein said.
To combat these challenges, TUBRIC has been designed to be as dynamic as possible to accommodate various kinds of research.
“We’re trying to build a facility not just for our own use, but [that] could also be open to anybody,” said Dr. Ze Wang, a radiology professor at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine who directs research at the hospital’s MRI center and works closely with researchers at TUBRIC.
“Rather than have a single configuration here, we’ll be able to reconfigure dynamically, according to the particular needs of a particular study,” Chein added.
In pediatric studies, for example, researchers will use books, toys and colorful carpeting to “transform the place to be friendly to a pediatric [participant],” Chein said. “It’s going to all roll out in a modular fashion, be ready in a five-minute setup and make the place look like we always [scan] kids here.”
Additionally, the facility is equipped with three behavioral testing rooms and a mock-scanner, where researchers can acclimate subjects to the testing environment before moving to the actual fMRI.
Chein, who uses neuroimaging to study the development of adolescent decision-making, said he feels TUBRIC’s flexibility allows it to “serve a large community with people with very different interests.”
W. Geoffrey Wright, a physical therapy professor and director of neuromotor sciences programs, works with TUBRIC to study the behavioral implications of brain trauma. Through facilitating new connections between scientists in different fields, Wright said he thinks the center will encourage more researchers to utilize behavioral neuroimaging to probe their own questions.
“The more [TUBRIC] gets itself out there to the rest of the Temple community, the more likely questions are just going to spontaneously be asked that would not have occurred [otherwise],” Wright said.
Wright said the university’s access to cutting-edge resources and facilities like TUBRIC is a large part of what attracts researchers.
“[It’s] the kind of stuff that people see and say, ‘If I were in this environment, I would just constantly be inspired,’” Wright said.